We would rather not grieve. Because we avoid it, death can leave us numb, and we may not know how to talk about it without turning loss into a lesson. “Even when it’s expected, death or loss still comes as a surprise,” writes psychotherapist Megan Devine in her book on grieving, It’s OK That You’re Not OK. And in grief, it can so happen that “otherwise intelligent people have started spouting slogans and platitudes, trying to cheer you up. Trying to take away your pain.” Everything happens for a reason, they’re in a better place, they’d want you to be happy, this will make you stronger….! However well-intentioned, “platitudes and cheerleading solve nothing.”
Is loss a problem to be solved? Can we avoid grief without shutting out the intimacy of love? There are many sage answers to these questions. Few, for example, have written as elegantly or agonized as publicly about love and loss as singer Nick Cave of The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds. These are subjects to which he returns on album after album and in entries of his cult-favorite blog The Red Hand Files, where Cave publishes answers to an assortment of fan questions.
Musing in 2019 on whether artificial intelligence will ever produce a great song, for example, Cave states one of his major themes plainly: “A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.” From this capacity come our greatest imaginative feats, Cave writes: our ability to conjure “bright phantoms” in our deepest grief.
Cave wrote these last words in 2018 to a fan named Cynthia who told him about her family’s losses and asked the singer if he and his wife Susie communicated with their son Arthur, who died tragically in 2015. In answer, Cave avoids the cliches that Devine says do nothing for us. He neither denies the reality of Cynthia’s pain, nor does he leave her without hope for “change and growth and redemption.”
This is a very beautiful question and I am grateful that you have asked it. It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.
I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.
With love, Nick
Cave’s full letter, above, is as eloquent a piece of writing on grief and loss, in its way, as John Donne’s famous meditation (a poet for whom Nick Cave has a “soft spot,” he writes in another entry). At the top, you can hear a very moving reading of the text by Benedict Cumberbatch for Letters Live. Read more of Cave’s brief-but-deep meditations and lyrical replies at The Red Hand Files.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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